Written for Day Three of the "25 days of fic" challenge on tumblr. Prompt: snow. Quite possibly the saddest Christmas/snow fic ever written. I wish I'd written something generic and fluffy involving snowballs but having had the idea I needed to write it so you could all feel as sad as I do.

I'm so sorry.

"Oh! It's snowing!" exclaimed Lady Betty as she drew the curtains. She hesitated, not quite wanting to shut out the sight of the soft, gentle flakes just yet.

A faint voice spoke up from the bed behind her. "Is it really, my darling? I always did love Downton in the snow."

Lady Betty let the curtain fall shut as she turned away from the window. "It's a shame we didn't have a white Christmas but it looks like we'll have to make do with a white new year so that's something. Do you remember the last time we had snow, dad? I'm not sure I do."

Lord Grantham was silent for a moment as he thought. "There was snow the day before William and Caroline's ball. I remember because we were afraid we'd have to cancel and in the end the Witcherleys couldn't make it after all."

"Come on, dad, it's snowed since then!" laughed his daughter, moving cheerfully round the room, tidying and fussing as she always did. There had been many snows since her brother William and his fiancée Caroline's ball. William had a son now, two in fact, and the eldest had a girlfriend of his own.

"Has it?" he sounded worried. "Has it really?"

"Shall I get mother for you? It's getting late and you must be tired."

Betty was not a natural nursemaid but as she was the only child still at home she had taken on the responsibility without a single complaint. Sometimes her father watched her quietly go about her self-imposed duties and wished that she might still have a happy ending, some reward for her stoical devotion. There might be more grey than brown in her hair now and her own darling daughter might be long married herself but she was still a handsome woman and it seemed a terrible shame that her loving and losing should have been confined to one wonderful, terrible year so long ago in 1942.

"Yes please, if she's not busy. I think I should like to look at the snow with her."

Betty smiled. "I'm sure she'd like that."

As she was at the door, he suddenly spoke up again, tentatively but as if he desperately needed to say it. "Promise me something, my dear. Promise me that next year you will get out of here. Go to London and stay with Georgina for a while. Go dancing – you always loved that!"

She stared at him, bewildered. "What a strange thing to ask!"

He swallowed. Sometimes it was hard nowadays to speak so much. "Just promise your father this one thing, Elizabeth. I want you to be happy so much, and it's never too late."

Her eyes, dark and strong and so like her mother's, roamed over his face, giving nothing away. "I am perfectly happy but it's an easy promise to make if it means so much to you," she said finally. "Wait here, dad; I'll find mother."

The earl watched her go feeling inexpressibly relieved that she had made the promise. While he waited, he grew restless and even managed to get himself out of the bed and into the wheelchair without help. It was quite an accomplishment but it left him breathless. He closed his eyes.

"Good grief, dad!" cried Betty when she came back. "If I'd known you wanted to get up I'd have helped you. Are you alright?"

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak and met his wife's eyes behind his daughter. Years had been kind to the Countess of Grantham. She stood as tall as she ever had done without even the slightest stoop and her beautiful face was almost completely unlined. Her hair glowed white as much as it had glowed chestnut in former years and she still wore her tiara, the jewels catching the light. She always looked her best and, looking her over now, he appreciated it more than ever.

"Shall we go outside?" she asked, her voice soft and calming. She always did know what he wanted.

He only smiled in response and held his shaking hand out to her. She squeezed it as tightly as she could, smiling down at him, a light in her eyes that had never gone out.

"Can you manage, mother?" asked Betty anxiously. "Shall I wheel him?"

"I can manage," she replied. "Thank you, darling."

She always had managed, he thought, as he let his wife push him slowly out of the room, down the corridor and into the drawing room. There they stopped so she could unlock the French windows.

"Richie rang," she said casually as she turned the key in the lock. "He was wondering if he can bring Verity down for a few days after new year. That would be nice, wouldn't it?"

The earl blinked and then shivered as a blast of cold air swept in from outside. "Who's Verity?"

He barely heard her sigh. "Richie's girlfriend, don't you remember? Rather more than a girlfriend if my instincts are worth anything. We met her at her graduation this summer. She's going to be a doctor, you know."

"Ah..." Now she mentioned it he had a faint memory of a short girl, well endowed, with a loud Cockney accent and lots of strawberry blonde hair. "Yes. Verity. Good for Richie."

"It's funny, isn't it?" continued his wife as she pushed him as gently as she could over the threshold and onto the path outside. "One day she'll take my place, she'll be Countess of Grantham. But before that she'll be a doctor. How different the world is to when we were young."

"Better though, don't you think?" he asked, twisting his head as far as he could to look up at her.

She stopped pushing and put the brakes on the chair before coming to stand next to him. "Yes. I think it is better." She held out her hand to him and he took it.

Lady Grantham tilted her head up and watched the light swirling of snow. At her side her husband did the same. They remained together silently, side by side, for some minutes. A great sense of peace had come over them both.

"It was the happiest night of my life," he said eventually, his voice a mere whisper.

She smiled softly and squeezed his hand again. "Don't let the children hear you say that. They're under the impression that the days that they were born were the happiest you've ever been."

"You'll keep my secret, won't you, my darling?" There was a gleam in his eyes as there had been of old.

"You can count on me," she replied and on a whim leaned down and pressed her cool lips to his papery cheek, lingering almost painfully.

As she drew back, he caught her hand in his other one as well. "I'm so tremendously glad," he began, drawing deeper breaths, "so very happy that we had all this. Living my life with you, Mary, it's been the most wonderful adventure."

Her bottom lip trembled but she did not speak, just looked down at him as he hed her hand tightly between his, even though the effort to maintain his grip made both of them shake.

"There never was – never could have been – anyone else," he continued, a faint twist of a smile on his face as he looked back into the past.

Lady Grantham's eyes filled with tears. "I love you," she murmured, "so terribly much."

His thumb stroked gently over her knuckles. She was so strong, he thought, she always had been. It gave him pleasure at this moment to know she still was.

"And I – I have always loved you, since the moment I first saw you bursting into Crawley House in your grey riding habit, so angry and magnificent – you know I loved you then?"

"I know."

"And I love you now and I will always love you."

"I know you will."

She had to twist her head away from him then and she stared up at the sky again. It was almost completely dark now and the snow flakes were starting to swirl more heavily around them. Every part of the countess felt cold apart from her hand which he was holding but she would not have moved for the world.

"I will love you," he whispered, taking a deep breath, "until..."

She looked down at him when he did not finish the sentence. His head drooped slightly and very gradually his fingers began to slip from hers.

Mary Crawley did not let it happen. She caught his hands in both of hers, swallowed a sob and whispered with fierce love, "Such good luck, my darling."

She bent to kiss him and the snow fell thickly around them.